Thursday, January 29, 2015

Zucca in agrodolce, or sweet and sour grilled butternut squash

Life is bittersweet in all of its nuances, in the big things and the little things.

In the big picture there are love and loss, health and illness, success and failure.

And then there are the daily minutiae, some good and others not so much: a great meal, your wireless not working right before a deadline, a good laugh with a friend, a bad driver in front of you.

An unexpected drawing from your child, a tantrum.

A great day in the office, a note from the teacher.

The list goes on and on, day after day. And then, every once in a while, there is perfection.

Not because everything is exactly what you hoped for or dream of.

Not because something earth shattering happens, but because for a moment in time everything falls into place, like the pieces of a puzzle. They fit perfectly and it just feels so right in its utter simplicity.

The other day was busy, I had a work deadline and I picked up the kids from school late. We walked home and spent the evening together and it was just, well, perfect. We didn't do anything special or different, but it was good. On the walk home there was no stopping or complaining, or impatience. No demands, no negotiating. We got home and there was no fighting, no yelling, no jealousy, no bad moods, no eye rolling, no whining, no threatening. Even on the average day, there is a glitch, something that makes our fun time a little less fun. If one of us is having a good day, you can be sure another one of us isn't. But yesterday, no glitch. There were spontaneous hugs going ALL around. There was no lecturing, no arguing, no competition, no tattletaling. There was complicity, there were good grades and self esteem. There was sharing and generosity, there were games and laughs and fun.

On days like that I know I am doing an ok job as a mother. I know that, even if not always, I am able to leave stress at the office, at the traffic light, or simply somewhere in my laptop, and sit with them and play. I know that, even when my kids (or I, for that matter) show their worst side, it is just because they feel safe enough to let go with me. I see that they know how to be kind, caring, loving human beings.

So as in all things, the sweet is never as sweet without a bit of bitter, and I remind myself of that every day.

Now the same thing applies in food: opposites work well together, contrasting flavors create results that are better than the sum of their parts. Sweet and sour is the perfect example. Agrodolce.

A few weeks I saw a recipe on Rachel Eats that I couldn't get out of my mind. I changed the ingredients a little to adapt it to what I had in the house but it turned out every bit as delicious as I had imagined.
I used yellow onions instead of red onions and used balsamic instead of red wine vinegar. Also, because balsamic vinegar and butternut squash are on the sweet side, I halved the amount of sugar.

Marinating with vinegar has always been a popular way to keep food edible for  longer, alongside preserving, fermenting, salting, drying and smoking.

In Italy, there are many recipes for agrodolce. Housewives used vinegar to preserve a variety of foods: primarily fish and vegetables, but meat too. In the north, this preparation goes by the name of carpione or saor, while the names scapece or scabeggio are more common in the southen regions. The basic recipe often calls for the main ingredient to be fried and then left to marinate in a vinegar bath. A variety of other ingredients can be added, from red onions to herbs - mint is extremely popular in the South. The typically Venetian saor also includes raisins and pine nuts, supporting the theory that this recipe was brought to Italy by the Arabs through Sicily and the Spanish domination (the Spanish escabeche  also spread to Portugal and Latin America). The word scapece, however, may also derive from the Latin esca apicie, or sauce from Apicio, which proves it was already popular in Roman times.

If we go an even longer way back, this technique seems to have originated in Persian cuisine, where the sweet and sour flavors were a combination of vinegar and honey or date molasses. It then spread all over the Mediterranean alongside trade and invasions, from Greece to Northern Africa.

1 medium-sized butternut squash (or other pumpkin)
1 large onion (see above)
1/2 cup/125ml best quality olive oil or more (I added a little extra)
1/4 cup/60ml balsamic vinegar
1-1/2tsp brown sugar

Peel and then halve and clean the butternut squash. Cut crosswise into slices that are about 1/2cm thick (approximately 1/4 inch). Cook through on a grill pan until soft, turning once. Set aside in a shallow platter, salt lightly and cover.

Heat the olive oil in a pan, and thinly slice the onion. Cook in the oil until soft and then season with pepper and salt. Add the vinegar and sugar and cook until the sauce has thickened and caramelised.

Pour over the squash and let rest for at least 15 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature. We had it both ways and loved it either way. My daughter was home with a light stomach bug and does not usually like pumpkin, but she loved it when she was finally allowed to have some. Don't know if it was the case of the forbidden fruit or if she has suddenly started liking pumpkin, but it was a hit.


  1. I love how this recipe reflects life - sweet and bitter at the same time. Hope you're well.

  2. What a beautifully written post. It is nice to have that perfect day as reference, too, for the future.

    The recipe sounds insanely good and I can't wait to try it. I just made a bisque with my butternut squash, so I will need to pick up another at the farmers market tomorrow.

  3. Love this post! Most days are not perfect, but many moments are. :)

    This sounds like the perfect way to prepare winter squash!! Love that it is sweet and tangy.

    1. Hi Joanne, good to hear from you and welcome! Yes, life is made up of those perfect moments, isn't it?

  4. Life is really a balance of both, a bit sweeter one day and a bit bitter at others. The perfect recipe to demonstrate this! :D

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